Television Comedy Reviews

Television Comedy Reviews by Joshua Gaskell

Tag: HBO

Veep, S03E07

By Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche
Dundee Productions for HBO
Sunday, 18th May 2014

The American sitcom-writer is regularly tempted to write a Londinensian episode of his or her programme: a familiar-unfamiliar sit to revitalise (it is hoped) the com. The results are often strained (as in a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, for example). But, although they’re making an American sitcom, perhaps because Blackwell, Roche (and Armando Iannucci) are themselves British, this episode of Veep is no insult to the ‘Special Relationship’ after which it’s named.

Vice President Selina Meyer – the VP, or Veep (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) – is visiting her counterpart in London, Deputy Prime Minster Peter Mitchell (Darren Boyd). (The DP, or Deep?) The first shot is of Tower Bridge, which as we all know is what a dumb Missourian thought he was getting when he bought the less impressive London Bridge in 1968. The story is pertinent to the special relationship not because it’s true but because it’s told: the British and the Americans both want some of what the other culture has, whilst at the same time needing to assert their differences by taking the piss. This is repeatedly figured here in comments about Britain and America that are satirical whilst at the same time indulgent: complimentary criticisms, critical compliments, which will make viewers in both countries laugh. Amy, chief of staff (Anna Chlumsky) says of Dan, deputy director of communications (Reid Scott), ‘I would like to shoot him, but there are no guns in this country’: Brits feel good about their gun laws and Americans (the ones that are watching Veep) feel good about agreeing with the Brits. Dan refers to Prince Charles as ‘that sixty-five-year-old fucking intern’: Americans feel good about their democracy and Brits (the ones that are watching Veep) feel good about agreeing with the Americans.* But as we would expect from Veep, the mutuality of the special relationship doesn’t last through to the credits.

At their first meeting, Peter challenges Selina about a security conference:

PETER: The transatlantic security organisation, that’s going to Frankfurt and not here because…
SELINA: No, honestly, we haven’t made a decision about that yet.
PETER: I hope that honestly isn’t one of those words that’s lost its meaning whilst travelling the Atlantic.

The following day, in an attempt to ingratiate Selina to the British press, the team have arranged for her to be photographed in a pub. As Dan puts it, they’re trying ‘some reverse My Fair Lady shit […] showing she’s a regular gal’. Things seem to be going well as she chats to the landlord. He jovially tells her, ‘[I’ve] lived round ’ere me ’ole life. Born and bred West Ham fan […] West Ham United, they’re my local team’. But then, as she’s drinking her pint, Selina mistakes his cockneyish encouragement to get it ‘down in one’ for a Japanesey interjection with which she’s unfamiliar. Gamely she joins in: ‘Daniwah! […] Daniwah!’

Meanwhile, Jonah (Timothy Simons), who works for Selina’s rival for the presidency, is in town hoping to dig up some dirt. This comes in the form of a leak from Amy. Amy thinks Selina needs to ditch Ray (Christopher Meloni) – personal-trainer-cum-fuck-buddy – so tells Jonah about an inflammatory essay that Ray posted online. This finds its way to the journalists covering a joint press conference given by Selina and Peter:

Madam Vice President, can you comment on the breaking story about your personal trainer Ray Whelans? […] He wrote an essay saying ‘Obese children are possessed by the devil as a punishment for past sins.’

Selina does her best to wriggle out of it, but because Peter knows that she lied to him about the security meeting he decides to turn the screw: ‘I think we’re in it now. I think we probably should maybe see this through to the end.’

So Ray is fired. The visit is in (Deep) shit. Dan – ‘Dani-Blah’ as the press are calling him – has a panic attack and ends up in the hospital, where he too is fired for having hired Ray. In the end Selina calls time on the ‘special’ relationship: ‘let’s get the merry old fuck out of merry old England.’

* Another compliment-criticism: Mike, Selina’s director of communications (Matt Walsh), says that when the Brits find out the security meeting is to be held in Frankfurt instead of London, they’re ‘gonna be unhappy…er’: Americans laugh at miserable Brits and Brits feel good about their reserve.
† Mitchell also asks Selina about US spying. She tells him, ‘the US doesn’t spy on its allies […] we collect data’, to which he replies, ‘same thing’.
‡ The scene is filmed in the King’s Arms, Waterloo, which would actually make his local team Millwall. Upton Park is about six miles east. I guess, as the proverb goes, kings have long arms.

Hello Ladies, S01E04

By Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky, and Lee Eisenberg
Four Eyes Entertainment, Quantity Entertainment, and ABC Studios for HBO
Sunday, 20th October 2013

The humour of Hello Ladies feels like quite well-trodden ground, and not only because it takes its name from Stephen Merchant’s 2011 stand-up tour. But that’s not to say that it isn’t trodden well here too, and why not reuse the name? Merchant’s juxtaposing of his physical appearance and Bristolian accent with a self-deluding bravado has been funny since his earnest ‘Hip-Hop Hooray’ feature on Xfm.

Episode 4 begins in Stuart’s (Merchant’s) bachelor-pad, which is so swanky it makes you wonder whether American telly people find it easier to depict luxury because it saves them using their imaginations. (As the executive saith, shoot what you know.) In any case, Stuart uses his luxurious abode to bribe his two friends: Jessica (Christine Woods) gets his Wi-Fi code to let him go with her to a gay club (guess why), and Wade (Nate Torrence) gets access to the hot-tub as compensation for his and Stuart’s movie night being called off as a result.

In the next scene we’re in said gay club – did you guess why? Yes, because gay men get access to hot, unthreatened babes, and get to feel their boobs and stuff! Of course Stuart’s plan fails to get him in on the action: when he apes the good-looking gay men around him by grinding up against a hot chick she immediately turns round disgusted. Stuart’s reply is, I think, heartfelt on Merchant’s part, and takes us to the conceptual heart of Hello Ladies: ‘He was allowed to do it! What are the rules?!’

The scene in the club shows Stuart and Jessica’s friendship in its Seinfeldian aspect, i.e. cynical, convenient, unloving. They’re both desperately clawing at cool, at the in-crowd; Stuart to meet ladies, Jessica to further her acting career. Each uses the other to further their cause, but they’re both willing to say ‘fuck off’ at moments when a wingman is surplus to requirements. Through some tortuously embarrassing wheeling and dealing they secure invites to a glamorous party.

The party represents what they most desire, but their presence at it is not especially desired by the host or the other guests, so this scene is a continuation of the shallow social climbing theme. Again Stuart and Jessica team up to achieve their goals, and fail with the excruciating consequences we expect from this sort of comedy. Stuart makes a very bad toast and tells an inappropriate story about a boy at his school who was bullied to suicide, and Jessica performs a ludicrous tap-dance in a failed attempt to best her more-successful adversary’s party-piece (a song from West Side Story). Much of the humour comes from the Gervais-Merchant nexus of taboos, which essentially comprises the clauses of the 2010 Equality Act. Something is being said about a fine line, and the scene ends when the line is crossed: ‘That’s really offensive,’ complains an affronted gayman. Oopsy! ‘I think you should leave,’ intones the host.

Hello Ladies achieves its goal of setting our teeth on edge, but compared to a programme like Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback – another HBO sitcom about Hollywood narcissism – it does so without a great deal of depth. The Comeback used the mockumentary format as well as The Office did, to give a character enough rope with which to hang herself, which made it an absolutely relentless character-study (and watching it like chewing tin-foil). Hello Ladies is full of excruciating situations, but the characters aren’t well-rendered enough to reach that same pitch and comprise excruciating persons.

Moreover, the no-hugging-no-learning radicalism of Seinfeld (imagine a Friends in which they’re not really friends) dissolves at the end: Stuart and Jessica leave the party with nothing and we get to see the genuinely affectionate aspect of their relationship, as they commiserate their mutual humiliation.

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